A great day trip from Barcelona takes one by train to the Santa Maria Benedictine Abbey in the Montserrat, a multi peaked mountain, part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range. The mountain lies about 45 KM northwest of Barcelona.
Christopher Columbus, famous in Barcelona, named the Caribbean Island of Montserrat after this mountain.
The Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey hosts the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary, identified by some as the location of the Holy Grail well known in Arthurian myths. It was founded in 1025 by Oliba, Bishop of Vic and Abbot of the grand monastery of Ripoli. By the 12th century Pilgrims began to make the climb up to the monastery. Legend has it that in AD 880 the Virgin Mary appeared in a cave to school children, then their parents and eventually was also seen by priests. The sighting is now known as Santa Cova, Holy Cave or Holy Grotto and people still trek to the small chapels erected there in commemoration.
Montserrat means ‘serrated saw’. Looking at the photos of Montserrat and its multitude of rock formations, you can understand why the mountain has this name. Montserrat was Spain’s first National Park.
We arrived by train and took the cable car to the monastery. You can also travel by funicular railway. The trick is to decide which option you prefer before leaving Barcelona, as you purchase a combined ticket and you exit the train at different stations.
Barb my friend, wanted to really push her comfort zone so we took the cable car. The views as we climbed up the mountain were spectacular. The mountain is about 1200 meters high and the views from the monastery and surrounding hills are beautiful.
Having arrived we made our way to the monastery, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat and a publishing house with the oldest press in the world. The first book was published in 1499. Apparently it is still running. Regrettably, I was not aware of this before, and I don’t know if one could visit. Nevertheless, we had some amazing experiences while there—but more on that shortly.
Prior to entering the basilica we passed through a broad esplanade, Placa de Santa Maria. There are several beautiful buildings along the esplanade, still used to house and feed pilgrims and visitors. Statues of the founders are also on display.
The interior of the basilica is dazzling. Restored in 1990, it dates back from the 16th century and is a mix of gothic and renaissance architecture.
The Virgin of Montserrat is a statue of the Virgin Mary and the infant Chris. They are a black virgin and child. It is one of the black madonnas of Europe, its Catalan name “la Moreneta, –the little dark skinned one”. I found depictions of this Madonna in other churches in Barcelona as well. Apparently, in 1844 Pope Leo XIII declared the Virgin of Montserrat, the patroness of Catalonia. Given the patriotic nature of Catalonians you can understand her popularity.
In the monastery her statue is at the rear of the chapel, but we regrettably did not get to view it there. We were simply overwhelmed by other happenings. We entered the monastery at the close of the morning mass. It was a sung mass (Gregorian I think but I am not an expert in this field—but I can attest that it was beautiful). As the mass ended we decided to mover further into the basilica, to secure better seats and wait for the ‘L’Escolania choir which performs here every day at 1 pm. As we moved up, people in the pews began to simply sing. Slowly we began to realize that a large group was spontaneously singing a beautiful hymn in German. Looking around we realized they were all dressed in Tyrolean costume, the traditional dress of Austria. We had just come across our first pilgrims, a large group of Austrian Christians.
No sooner had their voices died down and we found ourselves surrounded again by music. This time we were standing beside a group of 12-15 men all singing Ave Maria a cappella. We were side by side with a group of men on a pilgrimage from northern Italy.
We were moved to tears.
Awed by the experience, we seated ourselves. We were treated to yet another musical experience—a short concert of a catalan songstress singing and playing perhaps a bandurria and two Japanese musicians with shamisens. This was a planned concert to reinforce hope and peace in the world. It seemed we were exposed to a truly global musical experience.
L’Esconalia, the Montserrat Boys Choir, then entered and lifted us with their beautiful voices singing the midday Salve. The basilica was packed, the aisles filled with people standing and listening to the boys’ choir of sopranos and altos. The choir, composed of 50 young boys , is one of the oldest in Europe and has recorded over 100 albums.
It was simply an amazing and unforgettable blessed experience.
Leaving the basilica, we were lucky to secure a picture of the Austrian pilgrims in their Tyrollean costumes.
We decided to take one of the trails up above the monastery. The hike was a bit more of a climb than we anticipated, but we were rewarded by spectacular views of the valley as well as climbers scaling the Cavali Bernat, an interesting rock feature popular with serious climbers. Apparently young people from all over Catalonia make overnight hikes at least once in their lives to watch the sunrise from the heights of Montserrat.
We did not hike to the top. We simply found a lovely rock, enjoyed a late lunch and a nap in the sun, ending our great visit to Montserrat.